Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1647-1652)
St Teresa of Avila was born in Spain on this day, March 28, five hundred years ago. She was a Catholic reformer, Carmelite nun, author, and one of the greatest mystics who ever lived. Because she is a poster child for Counter-Reformation spirituality, most Protestants have either never heard of her or see her as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Church.
Teresa was two years old when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther was himself a former monk, who came to reject monasticism, celibacy, and mysticism. Teresa embraced all three and took them to new heights. She was even the co-founder of a strict new religious order called the Discalced Carmelites. One story illustrates both her humility and distance from Protestant spirituality:
Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”
Teresa is perhaps most remembered for her mysticism. She was a visionary and her spiritual raptures even caused her to levitate on occasion. Here’s how she described one of her most famous visions:
It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form. . . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, or will one’s soul be content with anything less. . . .
But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport my soul and to send it into an ecstasy, so that it cannot possibly suffer or have any pain because it immediately begins to experience fruition. May He be blessed forever, Who bestows so many favors on one who so ill requites such great benefits.
Not everything in Teresa’s life was ecstatic bliss. She suffered much both physically and spiritually. She was often opposed by church authorities and nuns who resisted her reforms. Because of her great love for our Lord, she was called simply “Teresa of Jesus.” Happy birthday, St. Teresa!